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Great big balls of octopus — easy on the sauce

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I have a love/hate relationship with takoyaki. I really like the little dumplings but I’m opposed to anything being drowned in too much sauce, and the trend, especially at summer festivals, is to slather on too much of that gooey, brown Bulldog sauce.

Takoyaki are bite-size bits of batter cooked with a piece of precooked octopus (tako) and other garnishes on a specially made cast-iron griddle that has golf-ball-size indentations. Often unfortunately translated as “octopus balls,” the dish makes first-timers snicker. It refers to the shape of the finished dish — balls of cooked batter served six, eight or 10 to a tray.

Batter is poured into each indentation of the hot, oiled griddle and then octopus, pickled ginger, bits of fried tempura batter, konnyaku and scallions are dropped in place. Once the underside is cooked, the dumpling is skillfully turned with a picklike tool, and the perfectly round morsel gets its shape. Made simply with a mixture of flour, water and eggs, the batter is sometimes fortified with grated yam, especially in the Kansai region.

Takoyaki remains extremely popular in its birthplace of Osaka. One of the city’s large specialty shops, Yamashita Kanabutsu, which sells several dozen styles, estimates that more than 60 percent of Osakan homes have takoyaki skillets. While folks in other parts of Japan consider takoyaki a snack food to be eaten at festival time, the regional government estimates that households in Osaka make a meal of takoyaki at least once a month.

Takoyaki was born in 1935 at Aizuya, a shop near Namba Station in south Osaka. The shop had been selling a version of the Akashiyaki egg dumpling filled with meat and konnyaku called rajioyaki (named after the popular entertainment of the day: radio). One day the owner’s mother suggested using the plentiful octopus from the nearby Inland Sea to make a new dumpling. It was a huge hit and soon everyone in town was making their version.

Aizuya still serves their original recipe: dumplings made with a strong stock, flavored only with soy sauce — no mayonnaise or heavy Bulldog sauce.

During the takoyaki boom of the ’90s, every variation on the dumpling was tried and the takoyaki flavor made it into everything from potato chips to pizza.

It also traveled overseas to California, New York and London. Chef Hiroshi Nakahara, an Osaka native now at the chic BondSt restaurant in New York, elevated takoyaki to fine dining status at a 1999 dinner at the James Beard House. His haute cuisine version — pig’s feet and calf brain takoyaki with baby fennel — was well-received by the black-clad Manhattanites, but it’s hard to imagine this would be a big hit with the local crowd in Japan.

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Takoyaki

With all the many versions around (my favorite is a milk-based batter takoyaki seasoned with salt and a squeeze of lemon), the easiest for the home cook might be this simple recipe. Precooked octopus may be found in most Japanese supermarkets or in the frozen-food section of Asian groceries overseas.

Tenkasu are the floaty leftovers from when you make tempura. You can freeze and save them yourself, or buy a bag of them at the market. A good substitute — from a recipe at the Tokyo Food Page (www.bento.com) — is rice crispies.

Beni shoga is the bright red ginger found bottled in the market. It is different from the pink ginger served at sushi counters. After you cut the konnyaku into cubes, quickly boil it in water to remove the raw taste.

Hana katsuobushi, sometimes called odorigatsuo because they appear to dance when placed on hot food, are the very finely shaved bonito flakes available in individual packets.

Aonori, literally green nori or laver seaweed, is the term for finely ground, bright-green dried nori. It is available in jars or packets in the seasoning aisle.

A takoyaki griddle (there really is no substitute) can be purchased at restaurant supply stores or “home centers” in Japan. Like all cast iron, it should be kept well-oiled and never washed with soap. Before attempting this at home, go and watch the turning technique of a professional. The key to successful takoyaki is all in the wrist.

For the batter

1 cup flour
4 cups dashi (or water)
4 eggs
pinch of baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup grated yamaimo (yam) (optional)

For the takoyaki

100 grams pre-cooked octopus, cut into 1-cm cubes
1/4 cup beni shoga (red pickled ginger)
1/4 cup tenkasu (or rice crispies)
1/4 cup konnyaku, cut into 1-cm cubes
1/4 cup scallions, rough chopped

For the garnish

hana katsuobushi
aonori
Bulldog sauce (or similar sauce)

1) Combine the batter in a bowl, being careful not to overmix.

2) Heat the takoyaki skillet and brush lightly with oil.

3) Fill each indentation with batter and then drop in a piece of octopus, followed by a few pieces of each of the rest of the ingredients.

4) Once the bottom is cooked, carefully turn with a thin skewer or a butter knife.

5) Keep turning the dumplings until they are crisp on the outside but still undercooked at the center.

6) Remove to a serving dish and brush lightly with sauce, then sprinkle with katsuo and aonori.